When a 40-year-old comedy sketch becomes the subject of aggressive protest at one of the country’s most respected college campuses, something has gone wildly wrong with academic culture. Finally, even students and faculty are noticing.
Reed College is a small liberal arts school in Portland, Oregon. The National Science Foundation ranked it second in producing future Ph.D.s in the humanities and fourth in all subjects. The Princeton Review found it both the second-most studious student body in the country and the most liberal. But as on many campuses, honest questions about institutional racial bias and choice of curricula have given way to efforts to aggressively silence anyone deemed not sufficiently committed to a minority’s view of anti-racism.
At Reed, this struggle has largely centered on Humanities 110, a required year-long freshman course. The class is designed to teach students “how to discuss, debate, and defend their readings” using materials largely drawn from ancient Greece, though also from other ancient cultures including Mesopotamia, Persia and Egypt.
A student group calling itself Reedies Against Racism (RAR) found this syllabus wanting. In a statement, RAR wrote, “We believe that the first lesson that freshmen should learn about Hum 110 is that it perpetuates white supremacy—by centering ‘whiteness’ as the only required class at Reed.” Since September 2016, RAR has organized recurring protests in which the organization’s members sit in at every Hum 110 lecture, displaying strongly worded signs.
The comedy sketch that caused a spike in outrage was a Steve Martin skit from Saturday Night Live, in which he performs the song “King Tut,” meant to satirize the commodification of Egyptian culture, especially in light of a Tutankhamun exhibit touring America at the time. The idea of showing the skit was to spark debate – presumably including debate over whether the satire was effective or sufficient reason for adopting costumes or postures that might offend. Such a debate is perfectly at home in a college classroom (even if I suspect the average Reed student would come to very different conclusions than, say, I would).
But a RAR member told Reed’s student newspaper that the song was so egregious it should not have been played in class at all, The Atlantic reported. In this student’s world, there is no merit in discussing whether or to what degree something like the SNL skit is racist; it is certainly racist and should thus be forever banished from public view. Anyone who disagrees is not worth hearing.
Lucia Martinez Valdivia, an assistant professor of English and one of the Hum 110 professors at Reed, asked that RAR not occupy her classroom because it triggered her pre-existing post-traumatic stress disorder. In an open letter on Facebook responding to her request, RAR began by saying they “unquestioningly respect [her] trauma and defend [her] right to heal” before promptly arguing that Martinez Valdivia was prioritizing her own PTSD over that of some of the protesters. The group added that she had been “anti-black, ableist, and has engaged in gaslighting.”
In an op-ed for The Washington Post this fall, Martinez Valdivia explained that Reed’s faculty and administration initially allowed RAR protestors to sit in the lectures “in the interest of supporting dissent and the free exchange of ideas.” But in practice, she said, the ongoing protests led her to teach more timidly and some of her colleagues to give up lecturing altogether.
“The right to speak freely is not the same as the right to rob others of their voices,” she observed.
In addition to giving RAR members a platform, the college administration met many of the group’s initial demands and actively invited the students to meetings designed to solicit ideas for a redesigned Hum 110 syllabus. RAR members, however, eventually stopped coming to such meetings. Instead, they escalated their disruption. At the first Hum 110 lecture of this academic year, RAR leaders interrupted a panel presentation introducing the course and were sufficiently disruptive to get the lecture canceled.
This escalation, however, may represent a turning point. Not only are faculty like Martinez Valdivia beginning to speak up; other Reed students are willing to risk RAR’s disapproval by pushing back, despite the group’s history of aggressive Facebook messaging and social ostracism of those who openly disagree with them. Freshmen, especially, have become bolder in admonishing those who try to prevent them from learning.
Their frustration is especially understandable when you consider that the cost of attending Reed College, including books and on-campus room and board, is just under $69,000 per year ($68,920, to be exact). Some students are starting to object to the fact that they are being deprived of what they pay for. At the same time, a few campus voices at Reed and elsewhere are starting to question what sort of behavioral monster their irresponsible tolerance for disruption has unleashed. One student told The Atlantic that he felt the freshman class had become a prop in the struggle between RAR and the faculty; his frustrated outburst to that effect, captured on video, drew a round of applause from his peers.
While the situation at Reed is extreme, it is not an isolated case. Michael H. Schill, the president of the University of Oregon, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times this fall after student protesters prevented him from delivering his state-of-the-university speech. Like other academic administrators and faculty who are beginning to speak out about students attempting to silence dissent, Schill points out that he is not against protest, and that at its best protest can engender dialogue and productive change. But silencing others hurts activists’ cause by alienating potential allies and stalling the process before change can occur.
“As with any important discussion, emotions can run high,” Schill wrote. “But the only way to create change is to grapple with difficult issues. Nothing can be gained by shutting them out.”
Maybe, just maybe, we may have finally reached a tipping point – one where faculty, administrators and even other students are willing to push back against those who would silence anyone with whom they disagree. It is long overdue.